As a teamwork training manual for young athletes, When the Game Stands Tall may be useful viewing, but as a gripping drama, it's dodgy at best.
Loosely based on sportswriter Neil Hayes' book about high school football coach Bob Ladouceur, who led his De La Salle Spartans to a historic 151-game winning streak, the script (by Scott Marshall Smith) wisely includes the game that broke the streak. The problem is that the film struggles to treat its characters as individuals, which may leave you wondering, "Wait, which guy is that, the Baptist or the one whose dad bullies him?" Plus Jim Caviezel's constipation-face take on Ladouceur is about as scintillating as reading decades-old box scores.
The film, helmed by Thomas Carter (Save the Last Dance, Coach Carter), has a rocky start, skittering back and forth between a season championship game and the team meeting held 24 hours before. In theory, this meeting is a good way to introduce the team, but the inconclusive camerawork, nighttime lighting and rapid cuts back to the game make it hard to keep track of the characters. When you can't tell one player from another, it's hard to care about any of them. Eventually, though, the players come into some focus. Unfortunately, the young actors who play them don't have enough innate charisma to overcome the anemic characterizations and abandoned story arcs.
The gridiron action is competently staged, the sound design packs a visceral punch, and the message is unimpeachable: High school football isn't about winning, it's about molding boys into men. But Caviezel, seeming vaguely sociopathic, is a poor conduit for that message. Michael Chiklis, who plays Ladouceur's assistant coach, is an actor you could imagine more vividly embodying Ladouceur's righteous mix of humility, religiosity and game-day intensity. But let's be honest: One guy already nailed the holy trinity of God, family and football, and his name's Kyle Chandler. It's an impossible standard, maybe, but in 42 minutes, TV's Friday Night Lights delivered all-star-level emotional complexity and action. In comparison, When the Game Stands Tall is the JV squad.